Puppy Pupils Report for Class at a New Detection Dog Training Center

Dr. Otto holds one of her puppy pupils, Sirius, at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
John Donges / Penn Vet
Dr. Otto holds one of her puppy pupils, Sirius, at the Working Dog Center.

At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, everyone is learning, including the students, veterinarians, volunteers — and puppies. Bretagne, Kaiserin, Morgan, Papa Bear, Sirius, Socks and Thunder make up the class of 2013 at the center, which opened on Sept. 11 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

All of these pups, who have been donated by carefully selected breeders, are named for dogs who worked at the sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and all of them will graduate with top-notch detection skills to sniff out everything from explosives to narcotics.

The privately funded center uses volunteers to assist in the training and socialization of the canine students, most of which are Labrador Retrievers, along with a Dutch Shepherd and a Golden Retriever.

Dr. Cynthia Otto, DVM, who has plenty of experience with detection dogs, oversees the Penn Vet's Working Dog Center. Dr. Otto has worked with the pups who helped search for survivors at Ground Zero. As an emergency and critical care veterinarian, she's also consulted with the military on the health of canines like Cairo, who took part in the daring Osama bin Laden mission in Pakistan with the Navy Seals.

As the center gets ready to celebrate its one-month anniversary this week, Vetstreet sat down with Dr. Otto to talk about the program and her star students.

Q. How does the Penn Vet Working Dog Center differ from other detection dog training programs?

A. Dr. Cynthia Otto: “Although many programs share parts of what we are doing, there are no programs that have the whole package. We are getting the pups at 8 weeks of age, and they live with foster families, so they come to our center from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, for foundation training. The early developmental exposure is critical, but even more critical is the data that we are collecting. We are looking at the program as a study to determine the best practices for raising, training and eventually breeding detection dogs.”

Q. What do you hope to learn while studying the dogs?

A. “We want to know the physical, behavioral, training, environmental and genetic aspects that contribute to a happy, healthy and successful detection dog. In addition, as a side benefit, we will be learning about how the interaction with these dogs benefits people!”

Q. How do you go about training a puppy?

A. “Our first step is to build play drive, so we set up an environment in which the puppy can have fun and chase a toy. We have them do that in all sorts of places, and on all sorts of surfaces, to build confidence. We gradually add in some obedience in a positive and fun way. As the dogs progress, the biggest goal is to get them to search for that toy they love so much. They will be coming to the center for approximately one year, but on any given day, a play or training session may last for minutes or up to an hour, depending on the pup.”


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